Conrad Everton Johnson was a fixture at the Ride On bus garage in Silver Spring, a chummy place where the drivers greeted each other with a special salute as they prepared to make the rounds each day.
The son of a longtime Ride On bus driver, Johnson had logged 10 years himself on the crowded roads of southern Montgomery County, a decade of ferrying people to and from Metro stops, fighting traffic and making deadlines. His co-workers said few things could shake him from his routine, until yesterday.
About one minute before he was scheduled to pick up his first passenger of the day, Johnson was standing on the top step of Bus 5705 in Aspen Hill when a single bullet ripped into his abdomen. Surgeons at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda tried to save his life, but the wound was too severe.
His violent death brought grief and fear to the Ride On garage in Silver Spring, where Johnson was known as a friendly, smiling man who cared deeply for his colleagues.
"He was a loving human being, a strong family man," said Gino Renne, president of the county bus drivers union, Local 1994 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. "Everybody knows him and loved him. He was just filled with life and goodness. It's a huge loss, an absolute tragedy. Such a waste."
Johnson, 35, was a workingman from the suburbs, the son of Jamaican immigrants, a husband, a father of two boys, and a member of a large extended family.
By late morning, nearly 30 family members had gathered at the hospital while Johnson remained in surgery. One car pulled up, with a distraught woman and her child. As they headed toward the entrance, the little boy was overheard saying, "Mommy, I said stop crying."
Many of Johnson's fellow drivers learned about the shooting while they were running their own routes, notified on the dispatch system that one of their colleagues was badly hurt. Although Johnson was not identified by name, some drivers said they quickly figured it out when the location was disclosed.
Bernita Perry, 40, broke down crying on her Ride On bus in downtown Silver Spring when the news broke over her radio. A longtime friend of Johnson's, she tried to keep going but finally called a supervisor to come pick her up and take over her route.
Perry said she had seen Johnson early that morning at the depot, but they didn't have time to engage in their usual chitchat because both were running late.
"I didn't get a chance to say goodbye," she said, her voice cracking. "He was a wonderful man, he got along with everybody."
Ronald Ray Robinson, 51, a bus driver with a dozen years' experience, also crossed paths with Johnson at the Silver Spring garage shortly before the shooting. They laughed and kidded around, as usual, as they got their coffee and prepared to start the workday.
Robinson struggled to find the right words to describe his friend, his eyes tearing up. "Very good human being," he said. "He knows a lot of people. He talks to everybody."
Johnson, a 1986 graduate of Friendly High School in Fort Washington, lived in a cream-colored townhouse in Oxon Hill with his wife and two sons, ages 7 and 15. Neighbors said he loved to work on cars, cook chicken curry and play football with neighborhood kids.
Gary McClam stood outside his townhouse in the same block where Johnson lived and offered fond memories of his neighbor, even as he expressed shock. "This is terrible," McClam said. "He was always cleaning his car. He loved go-go music. It's scary, man. We need God in this nation."
In Fort Washington, where Johnson once lived with his parents, friends and in-laws gathered in a neighborhood just off Indian Head Highway to remember him. They recalled how he would drop by to help his father, Tyrone Wills, mow the lawn.
Ellen Alexander, a victims rights advocate for the Montgomery County police, arrived at Johnson's Oxon Hill home late yesterday and retrieved mail and a bouquet of flowers that had been placed there by a "Good Morning America" television crew.
Alexander told the media that the family had moved to an undisclosed location. She said the family wanted to be "very private."
Grief counselors were summoned to Ride On garages in Silver Spring and Gaithersburg, as some drivers called in sick out of concern for their own safety. Reporters were not allowed inside the drivers lounge yesterday in Silver Spring, but one employee described it as "like a funeral in there."
Some Ride On bus drivers who knew Johnson said the sniper had been the topic of anxious conversation in recent days, with some wondering if a driver might become a target because of their public presence.
One driver in Silver Spring said that half of his co-workers had tried to cancel their shifts yesterday, but Ride On officials said the number was much lower. The Montgomery County bus service has a fleet of 326 buses, and passengers make about 70,000 trips each weekday.
Al Genetti, Montgomery County's director of public works and transportation, said Ride On did rearrange work schedules and asked Metro to operate a few bus routes after some drivers refused to report to work.
"We're meeting our evening schedule," Genetti said. "These are great professional people. But whether you're sitting in the seat of bus or filling your car up, it's not a fun time."
Frank Harris, 60, a Ride On driver who reluctantly drove a route in Aspen Hill yesterday, acknowledged as much. "I was almost scared to come out," he said. "Ain't too much you can do if you have somebody out in the woods. We've just got to keep on going."